August 31, 2013

Yes, animals are conscious. And?

The "and" is meant to be first a rhetorical question, not a bit of snark. But, with further reflect, there is snark, too.

What raised it?

This declaration on issues of animal consciousness from Cambridge, which seems rather "loose" on detailed, nuanced discussion on issues of consciousness, but rather heavy on being a PR event. I'll discuss both in what follows.

First, brief thoughts on io9's take on it.

For people who follow evolutionary biology enough, or theory of mind issues in philosophy, it's not that big a deal to note that a variety of animals have some degree of consciousness. Evolutionary biology points at expanding brain complexity, even without getting bogged down in the world of evolutionary psychology. Theory of mind points at things like embodied cognition, hinting that animals with suitable appendages and/or use of items as tools will develop some sort of consciousness. 

It's almost like io9's writer was engaged in some version of speciesism.

Second, some points specific to the declaration, focusing on this graf:
 "The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states," they write, "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors."
Here's a few points to note, in light of that, though.

This is important in informing us on animals rights issues. That said, before we all become Peter Singer, there's points to note:

1. Consciousness is not a black-white, on-off issue. It's an emergent property of some sort.

2. Related to that, there are degrees of consciousness, reflected in things like "levels of thought." For example, a dog, or an octopus, has no idea that I know it's thinking about something. A chimpanzee does, whether about me or a fellow member of Pan troglodytes. However, it probably doesn't reach third-order thinking; that is, a chimp probably doesn't know that **I know it knows** I'm thinking about it. And, certainly, no critter outside of H. sapiens reaches fourth-level thinking/awareness.

Closely tied to this are communications skills, and levels thereof. It's pretty clear that dolphins talk to each other. It's certain that octopi don't. And, while pheromones, etc., are a form of communication, beyond that, it's pretty clear that dogs don't communicate in depth with each other, and most of what they do vis-a-vis their two-legged masters is imitation, not communication.

3. Points 1 and 2 apply to emotional awareness and complexity, too. An octopus doesn't have as deep an emotional life as a dog, surely. It, in turn, while deep enough, isn't as deep as a chimp or, say, an elephant or dolphin, which in turn aren't as deep as us.

4. The "problem of other minds," or heterophenomenology, means that we'll never likely pin down No. 2 and 3, on a per-species basis, to an exact level of precision. I don't care how much more precise fMRIs get as far as either brain space focusing or real-time brain action measurement, they wont' get that precise, and, even if everything seems analogous to human brain actions, we won't know exactly what they're thinking, or emoting. This is especially true with more primitive emotions, or actions like whether a certain animal feels pain or not. Is that an emotion from some degree of quasi-conscious cognition, or is it a purely reflex action.

5. Related to that is the issue of "projection." Sure, those chimps might look oh-so-conscious, but it that because they look so much like us, from hairless faces and forward facing eyes down to opposing thumbs? Or, does a dog look oh-so-conscious precisely because he or she is "mirroring" us and we don't stop to think about that?

Contra what a Singer might say, none of this is "speciesism." Hopefully, our species is smart enough that, should sufficiently advanced aliens ever visit us, we'd admit they're on at least one level higher yet.

Back to other animal species here on earth, and riffing again on the Singer angle.

The above notes about levels of consciousness, combined with pain perception, say that we should be more enlightened in animal ethics in general. But, we don't need quite the same level of concern in our laboratory dealings with an octopus or other mollusk as with a dog, let alone as with a chimpanzee or dolphin. 

So, saying "animals are conscious" or "more animals are conscious than we thought before" is nice, or "nice," but it doesn't really tell us a lot.

The grunt work is in identifying levels of consciousness (after all, we H. sapiens are sometimes less conscious than at other times), followed by discussing what this means for how we should act toward animals.

That (as Singer shows, regardless of what one things of his particular  views and program) is where science leaves off and philosophy begins. What do these levels of conscious mean? What does our reaction to trying to sort out and assign levels of consciousness mean? Beyond faulty brain examination tools and maze-type tests, what do the particular tools that we use to try to determine consciousness mean?

All these things are important because, although the Cambridge Declaration is a statement by a small group of scientists, it's going to be one that's repeatedly used by scientific activitists. And, given that a signatory like Christof Koch works on issues of consciousness, the failure to note that consciousness is a nuanced issue, and that, as many people have pointed out in discussion of consciousness as a phenomenological issue, that people still don't see one "universal X" as a keystone of consciousness, is part of why this declaration, while "nice," and while interesting, even as a scientific document, is less than perfect.

As a document of philosophy, or philosophy of science, for that matter, it lacks more yet. 

Add in that these aren't "junior varsity" scientists, and that 60 Minutes was there, presumably at their invitation, to "memorialize" the event, and from where I stand the public relations angle of the thing only rises. Why else would you have Stephen Hawking, who has done zero scientific work on issues of consciousness, present?

To me, this document is as much pop science as it is science.

Also, by having Hawking involved, it's a false appeal to authority, a fundamental error of logic.

Let's duly note it as a news event and move on, but not while filing this, as a PR event, in our collective memory banks for times in the future when its signatories make statements about consciousness.

It's sad that Koch et al decided to exploit Hawking to, I presume, make this a capital-S "Science" event. That too, will be duly filed away in my memory banks. So, too, will Hawking playing along.

So, too, will the old "follow the money" adage. With Obama announcing the "decade of the brain" research idea here in the US, and similar things abroad, I think it has to be asked.

I'm kind of doing a slow burn at myself, as much as anything, as I finish updating this, for not picking up on the PR and logical fallacy angles earlier.

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